Here's one for the Nice Try department - Marilyn Monroe and Laurence Olivier team up in a coproduction - a classy costume romance to earn for themselves some of the money they (mostly she) earn for the big studios. An ambitious and costly production, with the finest British craftsmen available, and it ends up a little lacking in overall pizazz. It's still far better than average for a '50s romantic comedy.
Don't let the sultry cover art fool you - there's nothing nearly so darkly exotic in The Prince and the Showgirl, which plays out mostly among brightly lit drawing rooms and palatial staircases. It's an old-fashioned three-act play which spends much of its time mulling over the petty politics of an Eastern European monarchy. One of the leads is a British Embassy official played by the veddy proper Richard Wattis ( The Abominable Snowman) who ties the show together and has almost as much screen time with MM as does 'Laurence of Olivier' himself.
It's not a bad play, and Terence Rattigan's speeches are both witty and well-suited for Marilyn. He uses the device of a large and ungainly medal being pinned and re-pinnned to MM's bosom, a ritual that isn't tastless as it reads. Everybody seemed to think the sensuality in Marilyn's screen persona was some out-of-control force of nature, when the truth was she understood it, was reasonably comfortable with it, and after years of practice on the screen, knew how to turn it on and off in appropriate doses. She's actually perfectly charming. In the middle of trying to extend her range in shows like Bus Stop, here she sticks with a variant of her dumb blonde, who is of course an instinctual sage. Perhaps the class factor of being billed opposite Laurence was achievement enough here.
The Prince and the Showgirl reinforces the old adage that whenever Marilyn appears on screen, other actors cease to exist. She simply glows, and holds our interest no matter what she's doing. True, as the center of the action we follow her almost all the time, but for all his methods and acting finesse, Olivier just can't compete. It's not a matter of clashing styles, as they mesh quite well in their shared scenes. Olivier does a fine job of creating a stiff martinet who warms up in small stages. For her part, MM plays yet another free spirit with the reactions of a child, who squeals and giggles whenever the mood strikes her. Yet she gives it enough gravity to be a conscious choice - her Elsie is a goofball American abroad, but she's no Ditz.
Cinematographer Jack Cardiff gives Marilyn Monroe some of the handsomest shots of her career - lit better than most glamour photography, and dramatically sound, to boot. Some interiors in a large London Hall are distractingly undercranked to get enough light, but elsewhere Cardiff effortlessly mixes matte paintings and impressive sets. Notice how in the embassy set, there's always an awareness of the time of day.
The usual gossip about The Prince and the Showgirl is that Laurence and Marilyn didn't get along, she was intolerably late, etc. - the same old stories. I'd bet that Olivier blocked things out and took care of the acting direction, while leaving the actual running of the set to Anthony Bushell, an actor/director billed as both associate director and associate producer. With film roles going back to the silents (and Boris Karloff's first English film, The Ghoul), he appeared in A Night to Remember and as military men in scores of English films. Among his directing work is the Hammer horror film Terror of the Tongs, starring Christopher Lee.
The Prince and the Showgirl stays light, and has its touching moments, but never strikes a deep emotional note or really shakes us up. It's as if something transcendant is meant to occur in the ballroom scene or the big church scene, but doesn't. The wrapup puts Elsie on her way to becoming some kind of kept woman for the Regent, which doesn't seem as much fun as it should. She could do much better, and appears more enchanted by the regal trappings than the man.
Warner's DVD of The Prince and the Showgirl is a minor disappointment. Released in 1957, this should be a widescreen transfer, at least 1:66. It's also a Technicolor release, and it looks as though an older element was used for the transfer, as opposed to going the admittedly expensive route of reworking the film back from original elements. Most scenes look fine, but quite a few have too much grain or are indistinct, (especially the optical of the opening titles) and the color is nowhere as consistent as it should be. It never looks bad, exactly, but after seeing the excellent no-compromise job done on the first batch of Fox Monroe Movies, this is nothing to write home about. Films released in Technicolor are always going to have this problem, and remastering them properly can be a costly process. Up until now, the bean counters in the studios have only approved a few titles, like The Wizard of Oz, for such treatment. Other dazzling shows, like John Huston's Moulin Rouge, sit in disrepair awaiting restoration funds.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,